Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Point Of Pointlessness

The first brew of the day is usually good, but today it's more than good. As the jetboil cools in the porch of my one-man tent, I sip the strong coffee from a plastic cup and listen to the continuing sounds of this morning's alarm: water rushing from the pumping station's pipes on the opposite bank into the sludgy Haven; the occasional bark of wetland birdlife I'm too ignorant to identify; the heavy breathing of Our Kid outside my simple nylon sanctuary which transforms for minutes at a time into muffled snoring before eventually relaxing back into deep sighs.

Half-way down my cup, but still not all there, I zip open the tent and let the new day inside. Turning off my headtorch, I watch the world wake up.

Our Kid's laid on an inflatable sleeping mat, cocooned neatly in a cheap sleeping bag and slightly less cheap bivvy bag. He pulls his woollen beany up from over his face, opens one eye and grunts, 'Where's my brew then?'

'Morning, mardy arse,' I reply and add the remains of the hot water to a large spoonful of instant coffee. Whilst he comes to, I slip on some shoes and shuffle off to explore our overnight location in the growing light.

I'd spotted the small copse of trees just off the Seabank a few weeks ago, and thought then that it would make an ideal spot for a night's camping sometime. And so it had proved to be. We'd arrived in the darkness, just after 10 last night, set up in the shadow of a tree bizarrely emblazoned with a Blair Witch-style pentangle and enjoyed a night in the outdoors that seemed unfeasibly comfortable given the late November date of our trip.

I clamber up the bank and watch the sky warm up like the picture on an old-fashioned television. The sun, not quite risen over the North Sea, tints the clouds in colours that promise beautiful weather. Flocks of wading birds settle on the muddy banks of the river only to move on seconds later in unkempt, screeching murmurations. Wild horses gallop, riderless, free, on the far bank.

There's a fence up here, and I sit on it, following the progress of a small dingy from the direction of Cut End towards the Port of Boston. Its outboard motor leaves a scribble behind it in the water. A man at the back, a man at the front, a dog sat contentedly in the middle. The man at the front waves as the boat passes, and I wave back. Before long, the engine noise retreats and I'm left, alone for a while, with just the natural sounds of The Wash.

In its isolation and bleakness, there's a beauty here. It's real, seeping into me. I feel it.

My mind wanders to the adventure of the previous day, then a tingle of expectancy casts my thoughts towards what we're about to do today.

It's not long, though, till a quiet internal voice speaks to me. As I sit on that fence, as the dawn merges into early morning, I listen to what it says and know that it's the truth. 'This is it,' it says, 'Surely. This is the point.'

In the immediate aftermath of this summer's C2C Ultra, I'd felt almost cast adrift. After two or three weeks of active recovery, my body and mind were both itchy for action. Although I'd no intention of plunging straight into training for another big race, I needed a little more focus than just going out as and when I could be bothered. And so, in those moments when I'd nothing better to do but just jot notes on random sheets of scrap paper or doodle on the back of used envelopes, a phrase came to me - 'Totally Pointless Challenges' - and a plan began to take some sort of shape. Before long, I'd got the start of a short list of snappy titles and one or two vague ideas:

The Totally Pointless Challenges

1. The Moonlight Marathon
A run from Boston to Skegness along the Seabank (probably the loneliest landscape in Lincolnshire), to be completed on the night of a full moon without the aid of any artificial light.

2. The Kayak Commute
A journey from my home in Saleby to my workplace in Spilsby (a distance of only 10 miles as the crow flies) done entirely by foot or kayak. Using the Wold Grift drain, the North Sea and the River Steeping, I'd link these stretches of water by hauling my boat on wheels by foot until I eventually arrived at work. Using this rather out-of-the-way and rambling route (around 40 miles), the trip would be a long commute - probably one best not undertaken on a work day.

3. The Lincolnshire Grand Tour
A 7-day cycle trip of 150 miles devised by Penny and Bill Howe in their book 'Cycling in Lincolnshire', which had sat, largely unread, on my book shelf for the best part of 20 years. As a route, taking in, as it did, most of Lincolnshire, it looked perfectly ok, but it needed a twist to give it sufficient fizz. The twist would be this: could I do the whole thing as one continuous ride?

4. Source To Sea
A long distance kayak trip paddling the length of Lincolnshire's grandest river - the Witham - from its source at South Witham to the sea, east of Boston. Best done over a long weekend, I'd carry sufficient food and water to last the 3 or 4 days it would take and wild camp at night.

5. The Darkest Night
A self-supported run of about 90 miles around The Wash, starting from Hunstanton and finishing in Skegness. To be completed over the weekend of the Winter Solstice, when, coincidentally this year, the moon is in its lowest phase. Starting at 9am on Saturday 21st December, the night we'd run through before finishing would truely be the longest and darkest of the year.

Other ideas came and went, but it was these 5 that always seemed to stick. I'd do them in no particular order and they'd probably keep me entertained for the next 6 months or so.

It's unfortunate that when I get an idea, I find it hard to put down. In addition to the challenges themselves, I also found myself drafting out a set of rules - a sort of ethos that the trips must meet:

a. They would be low key and non-competitive. None of them would be timed or raced against the clock. Success would be measured merely in finishing the challenge, regardless of how long it took.

b. The planning would be minimal - sufficient, but only just - and each challenge would be done, ideally, on an adhoc or spur-of-the-moment basis.

c. The challenges would be 'anti-gear'. I'd buy no new clobber for any of the trips and none would require exorbitantly expensive kit. I'd do each with the stuff I already owned, even it it made any particular trip a little more uncomfortable or slowed me down a bit.

d. I'd welcome company. Although I was sure I'd end up doing some of these challenges by myself, it would be brilliant to think that I'd be in the presence of good friends or interesting strangers for some of them.

Sorted. The scene was set. Or so I thought. That was until the prospect of a Totally Pointless Challenge no.6 reared its head - an idea for a trip that wasn't my own at all.

I'd been scrolling through Fb on a work day tea-break when a link from Alastair Humphreys' MicroAdventures page had caught my eye.

Read it here, why don't you?

I can't remember the tag-line that accompanied the article, but it was something like, 'Fancy cycling here to the coast for a swim?' To be fair, if the nearest sea hadn't have been so close to home, the idea wouldn't have been so attractive. But it was, and it seemed a shame not to do something in such circumstances.

By the end of the day, another adventure had been added to The Totally Pointless Challenges list, company had been sought, and a free weekend in November had been pencilled in:

6. The Landlocked Triathlon
Setting out from Coton-in-the-Elms - the place furthest from the sea in the UK mainland, we'd head to the coast at Boston. No-one in their right minds would consider swimming in the sea off The Wash (check out Roger Deakin's wild swimming classic, 'Waterlog' - even he wimped out of doing just that). Therefore, we'd camp overnight on the Seabank, run a marathon the next day to the bracing seaside resort of Skeggy, and finish off our extreme triathlon with a quick trip in the sea.

Crazy? Certainly. Pointless? Most definitely. Exciting? You bet.

The Totally Pointless Challenges season kicked off at the start of November. On a Friday evening, the night after a full moon, Tammy drove 4 of us (and a dog) to Boston town centre and dropped us off near the market place. It was pissing down. The cloud cover was dense. The moon that we'd be depending on for this Moonlight Marathon was nowhere to be seen. Nevermind, I'd reasoned, plenty of experience of trips not going to plan had left me with the capacity to look on the bright side at even the worst of times. The forecast looked promising, and even if the moon failed to materialise, we'd be able to run the Bank with our headtorches, still guaranteeing a good night in the back of beyond.

A mile out of Boston, leaving the ominous orange glow cloud of the town behind us, the sky cleared and a halogen moon appeared that would remain with us until we'd reached our destination. A landscape I knew so well was transformed under the natural light, and our run was brushed with magic. Jogging into the lamp-lit streets of Skeg at the end of our adventure, I felt like a man returning from the moon. We'd been to a strange place - this familiar place on our doorstep, but made fantastically alien by just the moon's light - that no-one I knew had been to before. And it had been wonderful. Our next jolly - The Landlocked Triathlon - couldn't come soon enough.

Fast-forward to the morning of Saturday 29th November and a country lane by a large farm, south-east of the Derbyshire village of Coton-in-the-Elms.

It's a shame that everyday life has a tendency to impinge on our non-everyday pursuits. As a result of this, two good mates had been forced to drop out of the trip in the days leading up to the weekend. That left us a triathlon party of three - a magic number some would have it. Our Kid and myself would aim to complete all of the disciplines, and we'd spend this first cycling day in the company of a little Rainbow, Lightning - still not quite 13, but a veritable veteran of just 'getting out and doing it.' He'd been unfazed by the 95 mile route I'd mapped out ('That's ok, Dad. We do 10 miles every week on the bike at triathlon club!), and was so positive he could do the distance that I'd never have had the heart to turn him down.

It was a mucky start to the day, rain drizzling down as we'd got the bikes out the van. Lightning was lucky - he'd got the cool retro BH road-bike, lightweight and newly-serviced. Our Kid and I were less lucky. However, the rules of The Totally Pointless Challenges had to be adhered to. Our Kid's choice of steed was a cheap mountain-bike that one of the guys he worked with had given him for free after it had sat in a back garden, unused for two years. To this, he'd attached his 'surf-mat surfari' trailer, loaded with all sorts of stuff that he figured he'd need, but probably wouldn't. My ride for the day was Radford - an old friend. Bought for less than £200 over 15 years ago, I'd cycled across Australia on it over the millennium and had recently started re-using it daily for my work commute. It was smooth and trustworthy (good points), and now a single-speed machine (maybe not such a good point). The gears had packed in a couple of years ago and with my local riding being predominantly flat, I'd never bothered to get them fixed.

Having loaded up for the overnight camp, Tam took a couple of corny photos and we were off.

Cycling 95 miles is a tough job. Cycling 95 miles when one of you is 12 years old, one of you is riding an old bike with no gears, and one of you is pulling a trailer full of junk is a very tough job. But memorable too. Indeed, there's moment after moment you know you'll remember for a long, long time even when they're actually happening in real-time:

- getting lost on an alarming frequent basis in the first three hours;

- Our Kid's inspired attempts at educating the 'youth of today'
(Scene: outskirts of Bradgate Park, Leicestershire -
Lightning: 'These houses are amazing, eh Dad? I don't think I've ever seen so many Mercedes cars in one day!'
Me: (rudely interrupted before I can get a word in)
Our Kid: 'These houses, mate - you know what the people do who own them? (No pause for any reply) I'll tell you. The man of the house will have a job in London. He'll leave for work on a Monday morning and get back late on Friday night. At the weekend, he'll be too knackered to get out of bed before dinner, and when he does, all he'll do is yell. The lady of the house might have loved her husband at one time, but, since he's never about, she'll divide her time between shopping for stuff she thinks will impress the neighbours, getting drunk during the day-time, and knocking off the gardener who's younger and cuter than the sad sap she's stuck with. The kids'll be occupied with getting screwed up by a private education, before following in their parents' footsteps. Posh houses? Fancy cars? Better off spending time with your family and living in a caravan, mate! Anyone fancy a banana?);

- sagging spirits towards the half-way point being miraculously revived by the best trays of chips we've ever tasted as we sat on a dirty bench opposite the Millennium Fish Bar in Melton Mowbray;

- as darkness fell, fog so thick between Corby Glen and Dowsby that you could only figure whether you were going uphill or downhill by the pressure you needed to apply on the pedals;

- a long rest for Skittles and pop at Gosberton, Lightning laid out on the grass verge, before embarking on the last 10 miles into Boston
(Me: 'Hey mate - better sit up. These folks passing in cars'll think you're dead!'
Lightning: 'They'd be right Dad!)

- Lightning's version of 'Are we nearly there yet?' on this last stretch: 'Dad, do you think we're a third of the way to Boston?'!

- the smiles on the faces of Tam and Whirlwind as we finally reached Boston McDonald's nearly 12 hours after setting out;

- Lightning's obvious pride at what he'd achieved - a big trip for a little man - even though he was totally shattered (so tired that he even let his younger sister give him a kiss. That never happens!)

We'd stayed in McDonald's a little too long. It looked cold outside. The knowledge that my wife and kids were going home to our warm house suddenly made a night outdoors with Our Kid (of all people) on a deserted seabank on the outskirts of a run-down town seem less attractive than it had days earlier. But, eventually we'd drunk the last dregs of coffee, dunked the last French fries into syrupy red gloop, and had run out of excuses. Two of us had rode a back road to the middle of nowhere, pushed our loaded bikes across a couple of fields and found our secret spot. It hadn't taken long for spirits to rise again. 'This is always the best bit!' Our Kid had said, maybe a touch too enthusiastically, as he'd blown up his sleeping mat and dug out his sleeping bag.

We slow to a walk at the stile. Leverton pumping station. Nearly half-way. The sun as high in the sky as it gets this time of year. An almost-perfect day.

I unzip the front pocket on my back-pack, take out a couple of peanut butter wraps, bandaged in tin foil, and offer one to Our Kid.

'We could sit on that bench for a couple of minutes,' I tell him. In the dozens of times I've been here, I've never noticed it before. Perhaps it's new.

'May as well keep moving,' he replies, but stops when he notices the bench's inscription.

I look too, hands over eyes to shield them from the sun's glare.

'Be still and know that I am God'.

We don't say anything, but I know we're thinking the same thing. A few weeks ago, we'd bounced e-mails between us on the subject of Tom Blake, author of 'Voice of the Atom'. 'Nature = God,' he'd carved onto a rock in Wisconsin. Looking out onto the salt-marsh, it's difficult to deny that this is true.

We sit on the bench anyway. The feeling - it's here again. That same sense of interconnectedness I've been experiencing all too often recently.

Here, on this bench, eating my sandwich, I look upon God.

And a quiet, internal voice speaks to me once more. I listen to what it says, and know that it's the truth. 'This is it,' it says. 'Surely. This is the point.'

We'd met Tam at the Pilgrim Fathers' Memorial car-park at 8am. I think she was surprised we'd survived the night. We'd loaded the bikes, trailer and tent into the van, waffed down the croissants she'd kindly brought along, and changed into running gear. We'd set off jogging just after the sun had appeared over the horizon.

It's rare when you don't have the Seabank to yourself, even on a day as lovely as this one. Today was no different. Enjoying our utter detachment from the modern world, the miles had passed steadily.

Our Kid had been in fine form. Pulled along by threads of conversation, the running seemed effortless. For 20 minutes he'd spun a tale about The Mavericks of The Wash - a secretive, hard-core group of farmer-surfers who rowed out to ride a sand-bar break that was only surfable twice a year when the alchemy of swell, tide and an off-shore wind mixed up a potent potion of awesomeness. Like all of Our Kid's conversational topics, I'd figured the chances of the story being true was about 5%. Nevertheless, it was most entertaining.

He'd then proceeded to lay down his theory of successful marathon running. 'To do well in the Seabank Marathon (he'd run the second fastest time in the race's 30-odd year history, so he was well qualified to offer appropriate advice), you have to become someone else.'


'Well, the year I came third, the weather was crap- rain, strong winds - proper fell-running weather. So in that race I was Billy Bland. Tough bugger. The weather just bounced off me.'

Oh right.

'And the year I won - you know when I ran the second fastest time ever...'

Yeah, ok.

'Well, that year, I was Anton Krupicka. I don't mean I thought I was Anton Krupicka. I actually was Anton Krupicka.'

Things were getting surreal. I was glad to get to the stile at Leverton.

The second half of the Bank is neatly partitioned by a succession of watch-towers. Arriving at the first of these on our recent Moonlight Marathon, we'd been surprised to be greeted by a 'NO ENTRY' sign. The outer bank, it seemed, was now out of bounds. Arriving here in daylight, however, it had been immediately clear why this was the case. Huge chunks have been cut from that outer bank, leaving the sea free to invade. The land between the outer bank and the next inner bank has now been given over to wetland flooding. It's a phenomenon seen across the length of the Seabank. Whereby over the last century banks were built, land reclaimed and a further bank built to keep the North Sea at bay, it's now apparent that Man is no match for Nature. The tide, in its relentless march, is steadily taking back what was once stolen from it, and Man is powerless to resist.

Eventually we'd jumped the Gib Point gate and started on the tarmac run-in to Skegness, my battered trainers squeaking, metronomically hypnotic. I smiled as I recalled the irony of spending Black Friday bolstering them with yet more Shoe Goo. I'll get 3000 miles out of them if it kills me.

Soon, Barbara Road had beckoned - the Seabank Marathon finish line. Our Kid, by his own admission, was as tired as he'd ever been. We ran the last steps towards Tammy and the awaiting fell-wagon, our adventure almost, but not quite, done.

We race out the sea, small waves lapping our backs, big bounds back to the shore. Electric shock cold, yelling, 'Arghh...!' between cartoon deep breaths. Our Kid grinning madly, Tam laughing uncontrollably. She passes me a towel as I start to shiver.

The wind's picked up. Fine, golden sand blows across the beach. Out at sea, storm clouds beckon.

A family walking a dog looks across. 'What're they up to?'

I stand on the shore, look out to the wind turbines. There are voices in the air, muffled by the messy crash of waves. I listen to what they say, and know that it's the truth. 'This is it,' they say. 'Surely. This is the point.' 

I'd asked Our Kid before we arrived in Skeg if he'd packed his wetsuit. He'd replied in his usual direct way. Something like, 'A wetsuit? You fanny!' There was no way, however, that I was going for a swim in November without my winter suit. Not great, then, that when I'd pulled the neoprene package out of my bag, I'd realised it was, in fact, Lightning's summer shorty. We'd bought it from Doncaster services some months back. Funny the stuff they sell at motorway pit-stops nowadays.

It took some doing to squeeze a 6 foot torso into a 12 year old's wetsuit, but I'd managed it somehow, and succeeded in reaching the sea's edge without a complete loss of circulation. The water had looked cold. It had felt even colder. But a triathlon just isn't a triathlon without a swim.

Strictly speaking, our dip could only be called a 'swim' with a stretch of the imagination. But we'd got wet, and that had been enough for us.

The Landlocked Triathlon had come to an end.

If you know Our Kid, you'll know he usually gets the last word. As we'd sat back in the fell-wagon, heater on full-blast, he'd been quiet for a bit, then piped up,' You know the next challenge - that winter solstice run you're on about? I'm bloody glad I'm working that weekend!'

A few years ago, two words became part of me. 'Empty Miles'. I've been banging on about them ever since. That's because, to me at least, they're important. In those 'empty miles' that many dismiss as worthless or pointless, that's where I find the reason for being.

It's the same with The Totally Pointless Challenges. When I mentioned my ideas to certain folks, that was their stock comment - 'What's the point of that?'

Well, there is no point. What I'm doing - what some of us are doing together - is totally pointless.

Or is it?

I've tried for a good while in the writing of this post to articulate what it is that adventures like these Totally Pointless Challenges give to me. Whatever I wrote just didn't seem to do the job. Then I remembered that strange Australian bloke from Byron Bay.

Tommy Franklin dances. Go to the Byron Bay foreshore and you'll see him do just that. I don't know how he earns a living. I don't care. I only know that when I watch him dance, he's feeling what I catch glimpses of on these pointless adventures of mine. The pure joy. The elemental, unfettered sense of freedom. The blending of external surroundings, internal landscapes and the very act of movement into the delicious champagne of Flow.

Watch what Tommy does here. Or here.

Do you get it? Do you know what I'm saying?

Maybe you do.

Maybe you feel it too?

We're conditioned from an early age into thinking that valuable activities must have a point. Work hard at school and you'll get a good job. Get a good job and you'll accumulate the money needed to make you happy, because we all know that spending money on stuff will make us happy. Right? We're bombarded from all sides by advertisements telling us just that.

But look around.

How many people you see are smiling?

Look at them, frantically scrolling through social media on their smart phones in a desperate attempt to connect. To feel less lonely. Less trapped. Less fucking miserable. To feel loved.

How many of your friends are not on anti-depressants?

Perhaps now is the time, like Tommy Franklin, to see the light.

We need to dance. We need to run. To career down a hill on a bike with no brakes, the rain in our faces. We need to plunge into an icy ocean in the middle of winter even though it's fucking freezing. We need to sleep outside, stare at the stars, feel the world turn. We need to sit in silence and feel our hearts squeezed tight by the beauty of our surroundings.

What you find in pointless activities is a Value you no longer feel as much as you should. It's where you find that feeling. The one you get when you hug someone you care about. The one you get when you kiss your kids goodnight. The one you get when someone special says, 'I love you.' The feeling you crave - you need - but which the modern way of living has all but snuffed out.

That feeling is found in pointless activities. In these Totally Pointless Challenges. That's the point. Buried deep within them is the meaning of life.

My main-man, runner and philosopher, George Sheenan would have had a name for these pointless challenges. He'd have just called them 'play.'

So, I'll leave the last words to him, because he can say it better than I ever could:

'In play you realise simultaneously the supreme importance and the utter insignificance of what you are doing.

You accept the paradox of pursuing what is, at once, essential and inconsequential.

Play is the answer to the puzzle of our existence.

Play is where life lives.'

That's it.


That's the point.

That's the point of pointlessness.